Following the publication of the Government's new nutritional standards for school meals last month, caterers are now busily poring over the details. Of particular priority are the interim food-based standards, which must be put into practice by the start of the next school year in September.
By then, caterers must ensure schoolchildren are served only "high-quality meat", that there are more vegetables and fruit on the menu, that the amount of fried food is reduced and that fizzy drinks and high-sugar confectionery have been ditched altogether.
Other areas are less clear, and the Local Authority Caterers Association has criticised the document for its ambiguity. For example, the standards say bread must be available every day, but it is not specified whether this is to be part of the school lunch or in addition to it.
Catering consultant Gary Stewart also wants to see clarification of hazy statements such as "meat products may be served occasionally". He complains: "We've waited since January for these standards and they're still vague."
Help with queries To help with queries, the School Food Trust, a body set up in 2005 with £15m of funding from the Department for Education and Skills, has introduced an information hotline and is soon to release guidelines to help caterers comply with the new rules.
Despite the tight deadline, however, caterers seem confident any uncertainties will be ironed out by September.
At Scolarest, the education division of Compass Group, managing director Tony Sanders says the company is already busy testing new meals, including ratatouille and mixed bean wraps, Russian fish pie, roast vegetable tarts and fruit smoothies, in 70% of the secondary schools it serves. "Our staff are collecting feedback forms and talking directly to students before sending comments on to our development chefs, who will tweak recipes if needed," he says.
At Initial Catering, managing director Simon James claims that his company has been preparing for the changes since the consultation document was released six months ago. "That gave us an indication of the basic requirements and allowed us to start making adjustments then," he says.
Less proactive, however, have been some of the food manufacturers, according to James. It was anticipated that vending machines and tuck shops would be emptied of sugary fizzy drinks and chocolate in September, but James feels manufacturers have been slow off the mark.
"They knew a mammoth change in drinks and snacks was on its way," he says, "but I've still got reps running into my office with new design mock-ups saying, ‘Don't worry, this will be ready by September.' They should have been doing this a long time ago."
The question of whether enough money has been made available to implement the standards is another issue. The £220m pledged over three years has already been roundly slammed as inadequate. The problem is compounded in some areas because head teachers and local authorities still haven't allocated this money to caterers or, in some cases, are not even aware it's available.
Food service consultant Philip Houldsworth calculates that the Government's contribution equates to 12p per meal. At a time when the number of children eating school meals is falling and catering companies are being asked to invest in school dining facilities, he says: "This is simply not enough."
Houldsworth suggests schools may have to divert funds from elsewhere or ask parents to pay extra for school meals to help with the shortfall.
However, catering consultant Vic Laws believes parents will only be prepared to pay more for school meals if they see a healthier offering. "Our experience shows they're prepared to go up to £2 per meal but, after that, they'll vote with their feet," he says.
Healthier direction The School Food Trust is not so sure, suggesting that some of the £546m schoolchildren annually spend on junk food could be channelled in a healthier direction.
And it's not all doom and gloom. Catering consultant Julian Edwards says the new standards offer opportunities for caterers to make good profits if they approach the situation positively. He claims the mark-up on chopped vegetables, fruit and rice and pasta-based meals can be higher than on many of the processed foods previously served in schools.
But Bill Kennedy, catering services manager at Tayside Contracts in Dundee, anticipates more of an uphill struggle. Four years after Scottish school caterers went through a similar process with the Hungry For Success initiative, he says, schoolchildren's attitudes to healthy food are only now beginning to change.
He anticipates it will be another five years before a healthy-eating culture is fully established in Scottish schools, and says: "It has to be viewed as a journey where we're trying to change not just a menu but a mind-set."